This novel is one of the most famous of female author Fumiko Hayashi’s works. The present translation was done by Lane Dunlop, well-known for his earlier translations of works by writers such as Yasunari Kawabata and Kafu Nagai. It is part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and carries the enthusiastic endorsement of American academics specializing in Japanese women’s literature (see the back cover). It will be of special interest to the reader drawn to women’s writings of the immediate postwar period.
Though Dunlop states in the preface that the novel is not directly autobiographical, the “common reader” will see links between the difficult life of Hayashi and the emotional and physical ups and downs of Yukiko, the heroine of this novel.
Hayashi had a troubled family background and a poor and unsettled childhood, yet she claimed to have happy memories of her childhood. This indomitable spirit, looking back with nostalgia and forward with hope, no matter how harsh or sordid the present situation, characterizes Yukiko. She, like Hayashi, loved and lost a number of mostly feckless and unworthy men. Her happiest time was when she worked in French Indochina for the Japanese wartime government.
Some of the more beautiful passages in the novel describe Yukiko’s experiences there — “brightly colored memories of Indochina, like scenes on a revolving lantern.” It was the site of her two great loves: Tomioka, a forestry expert who left a wife and child behind in wartime Japan but dallies with Yukiko and a Vietnamese maid; and Okano, an idealist who believes Japan cannot lose the war. Okano’s love for Yukiko is passionate and jealous.
Throughout the long novel, this trio interact — coming together, parting, yearning for another chance (which usually disappoints), alternately (or simultaneously) loving and hating one another. After Japan’s defeat, all three are repatriated, and the scene shifts to postwar Japan, described in almost unrelievedly dark tones — “this squalid and defeated Japan.”
Tomioka drifts between his wife and the ever-waiting and willing Yukiko, until another, younger woman comes on the scene and seduces him. But she, like Tomioka’s wife, dies. (Poverty, illness and despair do in the wife, while it’s an abandoned middle-aged husband who murders the younger woman.)
Yukiko wastes little sympathy on her dead former rivals, yet Tomioka’s deepest feelings seem to be for the murderer. By way of contrast, he experiences his wife’s death as a liberation, and immediately sells off anything that might remind him of her.
Throughout the twists and turns of the complex plot, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of difficult lives lived in the throes of love not easily distinguishable from lust, and consequent loneliness (the word occurs again and again in the narrative like a sad leitmotif), jealousy and emotional emptiness.
The novel’s title is the poetic-sounding “Floating Clouds,” but near the end Tomioka says: “We’re like floating weeds with no roots. I don’t think it will work out for us” (another metaphor that, though darker, has literary antecedents in classical literature).
Occasionally there are ironically humorous interludes: Hayashi has fun with a postwar cult, the Great Sunshine Religion, which seems to blend elements of Amidist and Lotus pietism, Christianity, and positive thinking. A relative and sometime molester named Iba is second-in-command at the head temple and tells Yukiko that there’s no business like religion for making quick, easy money. Hayashi’s ear for the false notes in the sermons and prayers of the GSR is sharp indeed.
Hayashi has, too, a very good eye for the telling details of everyday life, whether those are beautiful (the Vietnam segments) or shabby and sordid — postwar Japan, at least in the urban settings. Nature remains a powerful and beautiful presence, as in the last chapter set in the far southern island of Yakushima, where Yukiko dies of a tuberculosis-like illness.
Tomioka is depressed by her death, but a month later, in a Kagoshima bar, “once more he could feel the roots of enchantment starting to grow. Untaught by experience, Adam, seduced by sexual charm … Tomioka threw back six bottles of beer, one after another, before he was dragged upstairs by the woman.”
A few lines later, in the last paragraph, the essentially nihilistic metaphor of the title appears by way of conclusion: “He was just a floating cloud — appearing, disappearing, then appearing again — it did not matter when or where.”
A word about the style of the translation: It begins well, grows a bit tired and careless in the second half, and revives wonderfully in the final chapter. In such a long novel, probably translator and editors alike grow weary from time to time.
Indeed, I wonder if the same was not true of Hayashi herself, since the novel was serialized over a two-year period. Perhaps it is appropriate that the novel and its translation, like the heroine, undergo various vicissitudes.
Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.